Lighting the Spark

Small-business stakeholders lead city’s entrepreneur spirit to new level

By Andy Meek

Somewhere, there’s an entrepreneur scribbling an idea on little more than the back of a napkin. Someone else has all the pieces of a new company in place, and now they’re ready to dial for dollars. Entrepreneurs are a talented bunch, but that talent doesn’t always include a knack for management or finance – skill sets that plenty of experts in Memphis stand ready to help explain.

The point is that Memphis does not lack for entrepreneurial energy. Because of a convergence of people and initiatives, that sector of the city has become a caboose with rocket engines strapped to it.

GREATER MEMPHIS CHAMBER - John Duncan is vice president for development and investor relations for the Greater Memphis Chamber. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

CASH MOB - Shannon Dixon (shown with her sister Sherianne Bangham, left) started Memphis Cash Mob as a unique way to support locally owned small businesses. (Photo: Courtesy of Jamie Harmon)

CREWS VENTURES LABS - Trish Kalbas-Schmidt is manager and Kevin Boggs is director of Crews Ventures Lab, which is being built in a Masonic Lodge adjacent to the University of Memphis. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

EMERGEMEMPHIS - Chad Hazlehurst, from left, Elizabeth Lemmonds and Eric Mathews of LaunchYourCity meet at EmergeMemphis. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

"THE SPARK" - Jeremy Park interviews Jenny Koltnow, executive director of the Grizzlies Charitable Foundation, for Episode 2 of "The Spark." (Photo: Lance Murphey)

Here are some of the things that will help that sector zoom down the tracks in short order.

Accelerators, incubators and more

“In a lot of ways, we’re experts in behavioral economics,” says EmergeMemphis executive director Eric Mathews about the spirit that animates the accelerators, incubators and entrepreneurial programs he’s long provided elbow grease for in Memphis. “In a sense, we’re trying to get people to make an irrational choice and then help them after they make it.”

That “irrational” choice is the decision to start a business, fraught as it is with stumbling blocks around every corner – some expected, some unseen, any of which can trip up the naïve, the proud and even the brightest and best. If it were fundamentally a rational choice, Mathews argues, no one would ever start a business anywhere, since the endeavor is hard and has to be sustained over a long period of time if the founder hopes to be successful.

That’s where a collection of affiliated programs and efforts in Memphis comes in, a collection that continues to be souped up little by little. Things like:

  • Wolf River Angels, a source of capital which is invested in companies with high-growth potential
  • Memphis Venture Mentors is a new collection of seasoned business professionals that will be tapped to counsel entrepreneurs going through various programs under the LaunchYourCity brand banner
  • Upstart Memphis was launched in late 2012 and is focused on fueling women’s entrepreneurship and innovation. This year, it’s going to introduce new programming and activities unique to Upstart and leverage existing LaunchYourCity platforms and programming
  • LaunchMemphis was started in 2008. It’s a platform that offers workshops, a founder’s toolkit, office hours and programming for early stage entrepreneurs as well as a co-working space in the EmergeMemphis building Downtown.
  • Speaking of which, EmergeMemphis is a business incubator that houses several fast-growing companies and entrepreneurs, providing them office space, and proximity to other established ventures, among other benefits.
  • Seed Hatchery offers startup founders a 90-day boot camp complete with a crash course in customer discovery, business development, go-to-market strategies and investor pitches.

The new Seed Hatchery round is under way now. “Investor Day,” at which the Seed Hatchery companies will make formal pitches for funding, is May 16. To date, Seed Hatchery has graduated 12 teams. Five graduates have received follow-on investments, and nine graduates still are working and/or bootstrapping.

Outside of the four corners of that affiliation of programs, there are related efforts such as ZeroTo510.

It’s similar to Seed Hatchery, except ZeroTo510 is exclusively for medical device entrepreneurs. At the University of Memphis, the Crews Ventures Lab is under development and will open later this year, and it will serve as a business startup facilitator and incubator for university students and faculty.

The inaugural “Everywhere Else” startup conference will be hosted in Memphis Feb. 10-12, bringing in some 1,500 attendees that include founders, venture capitalists, media and many more.

It’s been called by Forbes.com a “must-attend” event.

“If you are in the startup or entrepreneurial world and are located outside (Silicon Valley), then you are welcome at Everywhereelse.co,” reads the Jan. 17 Forbes piece. “Nibletz.com puts on this conference to address issues such as raising capital, partnership agreements, and other prominent challenges for those not in the center of a tech hub.”

One measure of success of all those efforts, Mathews said, is the creation of a “virtuous cycle.”

“We need to get to the point where companies are getting risk capital,” he said.

As companies move through those local programs, attain funding and achieve success, he continued, they can then return as mentors to train the next batch of entrepreneurs.

“The Spark”

Beyond all that, there are plenty of other opportunities to help light the spark of entrepreneurship in Memphis.

In January, the Lipscomb Pitts Breakfast Club expanded the palate it dips into for its small business and civic cultivation. The club is the driver of a collection of related efforts, including a radio show, community newsletter complete with business news and job postings, a column in The Daily News and a monthly series of networking breakfasts.

Added to that is now “The Spark,” a TV show that will basically pull all of that energy and information together and drop it in front of a television camera.

“This is basically an extension of everything we’re doing,” said the club’s director, Jeremy Park. “We’ve always had something more visual in mind. I’ve had five or six TV shows in my head over the last few years, to be honest with you.

“We’re trying to provide a spark. The whole idea of creating a movement, creating change – it’s usually sparked by a new idea. Some sort of passion you’re invoking or you’re watching somebody else lead by example.”

The programs will air the third Thursday of every month on WKNO-TV. There will be 12 episodes in 2013, and they’ll do what Park tries to do across all of the club’s platforms – tell positive stories about the community and about its small businesses and other participants.

Greater Memphis Chamber

Then there’s the Greater Memphis Chamber, which is trying to step up its game in the realm of help for small businesses.

John Duncan, vice president of development with the chamber, said it was born partly out of a desire to make more content and resources available to small-business owners.

With that in mind, a few weeks ago the chamber announced the launch of three new programs: Advice on Tap, ChamberLinks and a mentorship program. They seek to provide a menu of services to small-business owners, including mentorship, access to contract and vendor opportunities and one-on-one consulting sessions.

Through Advice on Tap, the chamber is setting up one-time, 30-minute free consultations with industry experts. The goal is to help local businesses grow by connecting them to people who can answer their questions. It’s open to anyone, and the chamber is currently looking for business executives to sign up to participate as the veterans who will provide advice to those who need it.

By the summer, ChamberLinks will launch on the chamber’s website. It will be a resource that gives chamber members access to contract and vendor opportunities, including the qualifications and criteria required for those jobs.

Information provided will range from procurement and bid processes to liability insurance requirements and contact information.

In the fall, the chamber plans to launch a six-month mentoring program whereby veteran business leaders will be paired with small-business professionals and owners. That program will be open to future members for a one-time $250 fee, which also includes a six-month Chamber membership, and it’s free to those who are already Chamber members.

Helping hands

Meanwhile, the new year has given business coach Michael Synk the opportunity to upgrade his In-Synk Business Book Review.

A resource for entrepreneurs who are eager to constantly soak up knowledge, the book review session had been held on the first Friday morning of each month. It’s now moved to the noon hour, and it will include lunch, upgrading the series to a lunch-and-learn format.

All participants in the Book Review in 2012 are eligible for a free ticket. Two-for-the-price-of-one tickets also are available, as is a six-ticket season pass.

The book reviews will continue to be held at the Triumph Bank boardroom at Poplar Avenue and Interstate 240. The next business book review is March 1, when the group will review “The War For Talent,” by Ed Michaels, Helen Handfield-Jones and Beth Axelrod.

In the book, the authors show what companies do to recruit and keep top employees.

That’s among several examples of the homegrown, grassroots component to efforts that are unfolding in support of entrepreneurship.

Here’s another. The pre-application process for MEMShop 2013 is open. That entity is looking for start-ups, artists, designers, creative thinkers, online businesses and established local businesses who might want to relocate or test out a new location.

MEMShop was a success last year, with the project seeing new “pop-up” shops turn vacant space at places like Overton Square into hubs of activity and commerce. People interested in urban renewal are especially encouraged to apply for the initiative again this year.

Meanwhile, Shannon Dixon is an independent consultant who recently decided to try something that hadn’t been done here on a mass scale: cash mobs.

The idea calls for a group of people who are in on the mob to show up at a prearranged small business, cash in hand. They agree to spend a certain amount of money.

“I think people like the energy that happens when you all come together to mob somebody,” Dixon said.

It’s the latest in a line of events like Small Business Saturday or local nonprofits pushing their own “Buy Local” goals with the idea of supporting homegrown small businesses and entrepreneurs.

Already, previous Memphis Cash Mob events have supported local entities like Literacy Mid-South and Goner Records.

Last month, the Memphis Cash Mob’s Facebook page posted an image that summed the whole thing up:

“Keep calm and love local.”